How Online Therapy Helped Domestic Violence Victims During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This article was produced as a project for the 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund at USC's Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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[Click Here For Spanish Version]

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of businesses and indoor activities in March 2020, the Valley Family Center in the San Fernando Valley had one week to convert its individual and group counseling services for victims of domestic violence to telehealth. Advocates thought it would only be temporary.

Eighteen months later, the majority of victims are still getting counseling services over the phone. The shift ended up bringing benefits and difficulties, says Lorena Villalba, the organization’s executive director.

“If the victim is getting services from their own homes, we don’t know if the abuser is there and knows or is listening,” Villalba noted. “When you come in person and you meet other group members, there is more trust.”

But for others, virtual services offered more convenience.

“We did have clients who had transportation issues before and now they can take therapy while having lunch or not having to wait in traffic for an hour.  Childcare—that’s a huge one. They can be home and the kids can be in another room.”  

And there was the issue of technology.

The Valley Family Center deals with a lot of clients in underserved communities and the undocumented, who are not tech savvy or have reliable connections.

“The difficult thing was training our clients to open an email account, how the mute works, how Zoom works,” Villalba recalled. “We even had people outside at our parking lot teaching them, showing them how to use their phone or tablet.” 

More help, despite challenges

Next Door Solutions, a shelter in Santa Clara County, reported similar issues when COVID first swept into its community.  

Executive Director Esther Peralez-Dieckmann said it took about a month for people to know they were still open, and they had to reduce  the number of support groups from 16 to 8 because a lot of people stopped reaching out to them for services. 

But they found the Zoom meetings led to “better feedback.”

“If you’re on Zoom, you can turn off your cameras so it gives you some anonymity,” she said. Sometimes they don’t want to let people know about their situation”.

Peralez-Dieckmann says some domestic violence victims “don’t want to let people know” they are seeking their services. 

She says victims feel ashamed and fear reprisal from abusers. 

“We had a lot of callers saying ‘it’s not safe to call me back. My husband is monitoring me more,” Peralez-Dieckmann notes. 

Victims who are undocumented also fall prey to “a lot of manipulation and threats around their immigration status” from abusers, she says.

The social distancing restrictions brought on by the pandemic also reduced by 51% the number of people they could admit to their shelters. In Fiscal Year 2019-2020, they housed 5,782 people there; in the pandemic year it dropped to 3,790. 

But the housing of victims in hotels went up 300% from 547 to 2,184.

In total, the agency provided housing to 5.6 percent less people in the pandemic year (5,974) compared with the previous year (6, 329).

“We still helped people who were fleeing,” Peralez-Dieckmann noted.

The surge in COVID-19 Delta variant cases has led both organizations to continue offering their services virtually.

Our building is open, but people have been shy about coming back,” Peralez-Dickmann said.

But she knows the pandemic year meant more need for their services. Their crisis management sessions—which they held at a table outside their facility because of the COVID-19 restrictions—went up 67% from 3,800 to 6,487. Case managers meet with victims to assess their situations, needs and help they may need. 

“The abuse became more frequent, more intense and complex,” Peralez-Dickmann said.

This was especially true in the undocumented community, where “there was a lot of manipulatioin and threats around immigration status.”

“We saw that a lot of abusers were manipulating the victims with those threats,” she said.  “Callers were saying ‘it’s not safe to call me back. My husband is monitoring more.”

Immigration fears

That fear is something Maya Canseco knows first hand.

The 38-year-old survivor of domestic violence came to the U.S. at age 16 to live with an aunt who “treated me like a maid,” she said.

Soon after, she moved to Denver with a 32-year-old man who rented a room in her aunt’s house. Years later, after giving birth to three of his children, the mistreatment began.

First it was mental, then it became physical.

“He would tell me I was ugly, fat, that I disgusted him. He said he was embarrassed to go out with me,” remembers Canseco, who tried to please him by going into the gym.

A drug user and seller, her partner also began to beat her for any little thing that upset him, such as one time when she accepted a ride home from a co-worker after he failed to pick her up from the restaurant where she worked.

“Several times he hit me with a closed fist in the face. He said he was going to destroy my face so that no one would look at me,” she remembers.

She never reported it to the police because she was undocumented and feared she could be separated from her children. “I

Canseco says her partner was also addicted to pornography. One day when she surprised him by returning home early, that addiction led to a discussion that quickly escalated.

“I kicked a laptop where he was watching pornography and it broke. He hit me. He fractured the left side of my face and some of my teeth,” she recalls.

She began to plan her escape.

A brother in Chicago and another friend in California helped her pay for a bus ride back to the Golden State.

With her face still swollen and her right eye shut, she went to a clinic upon arriving in California, where she told doctors she had fallen while moping and had hit a door.

“They didn’t believe me,” she says. “The doctor told me that even if I didn’t want to make a report, he would report it.”

When the police showed up, she told them the true story.

Officers contacted the Denver Police who arrested her partner for allegedly attempted homicide, she says. He was later deported for being in the country illegally. 

She applied for a U-visa, which is meant to help victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse to live and work in the United States. Unfortunately, five years later, Canseco only has a work permit and is still waiting to become a permanent resident.

“Everything is very delayed because of the pandemic,” said the woman who later would start a relationship with another man who turned out to be a verbal and physical abuser, as well. 

She ended the relationship and now works as a street vendor, something that began when she moved to California and found herself sleeping on the street for three days with her children.

“I bought fruits and started selling them on the street to pay the rent,” she remembers.

Canseco has begun another relationship, but is now much more “defensive" now. 

“I don’t let anyone control me. I don’t want more abuse,” she says. 

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund


Valley Family Center

(818) 365-8588

Next Door Solutions

(408) 501-7550

[This story was originally published by Excélsior California.]

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